Everything about Iowa is premised on turnout. Much of that turnout is premised on new voters showing up.
Pollsters have presumed somewhere between 29% and 35% of the voters who will go to the caucuses are new voters. This is no sure thing, nor are the projections of some pollsters that show a higher turnout than has ever turned out for any primary or caucus in the history of Iowa.
What people outside Iowa do not understand is that caucuses are more precise than primaries. On a primary election day, which Iowa also has, voters can show up from sun up to sun down at their local precinct to check a box on a ballot and walk out with an “I’ve voted” sticker.
On caucus day, voters show up and must be in the room by 7pm. That room very well likely will not be in the same location as the primary election precinct. Childcare has to be arranged and the voters will stay for an hour. If the voter does not show up promptly by 7pm, the voter is not getting in the caucus.
More importantly, once in the caucus, the voters hear short pitches from each candidate’s campaign and then vote.* A problem for Donald Trump is that he is not very organized in Iowa. Voter education is key. Voters have to know when to go, know it is on a Monday, not a Tuesday, know they have to arrive by 7pm, and know they have to stay for their vote to count.
Ted Cruz has a county by county operation. Donald Trump does not. So it goes back to turnout. If the force of Trump’s personality can overcome the basic fundamentals of a campaign operation, he may well win. But my guess is that he cannot. This presents another problem for Trump.
The polling right now has Trump with a very significant lead in Iowa. If he does not hold up that lead he is bragging about because he had a poor organization in Iowa, suddenly the Trump supporters’ god-king bleeds. The air of inevitability is off.
The historic winners in Iowa among the GOP, including Huckabee and Santorum, have poured massive grassroots resources into identifying and turning out voters. Pollsters, on the other hand, do not have subsurface level radar to know what is going on with the grassroots. They do model projections and can often get lost in sensational news headlines about massive crowds and new voter generation.
New voter generation has been a theme for several campaign cycles now. The only candidate to do it in Iowa was Barack Obama in 2008, and he relied on 200 paid staffers on the ground to make it happen. Trump, I am told, has less than twenty.
The data on the ground in Iowa reflects that. Instead of surging interest in the Republican caucuses, the number of Republican voters has declined in Iowa and the last minute surge of interest has only amounted to about 1,431 voters. In 2008, with Obama’s historic boost of new voters, “Democrats added 4,082 new voters in the two months that preceded the 2008 caucuses.”
To be sure, Trump voters are real. But are they real enough to vote in a caucus, which is an unfamiliar beast for people who have never voted or rarely voted before. And can they get to where they need to be by 7pm on Monday, prepared to stay, and prepared to publicly show their support when there is no ground operation from Team Trump?
Turnout matters. The polling projections with Trump in a huge lead project he will turn out voters like never before in Iowa. If he cannot, not only will he not win, but he will no longer look invincible and inevitable.
*An earlier version noted that the voting was public. In fact, Democrats do cast their vote by dividing the room or raising their hands, but Republicans have adopted secret balloting in Iowa’s caucuses.